Types, Recommendations & Innovations
By: Alyssa L. Ochs
Winemakers will often tell you that a delicate balance between art and science goes into every bottle of great wine. Lab testing and analysis are crucial steps in the winemaking process and present opportunities to focus on the science side of wine through the use of specialized equipment.
Wineries should familiarize themselves with many different kinds of lab equipment, especially if they intend to handle this part of the process themselves. New technologies are making DIY lab testing more manageable and accurate; however, outsourcing lab work is still the preferred option for many wineries worldwide.
Types of Lab Equipment Used by Wineries
Among the various kinds of lab equipment used in a winery setting are meters, hydrometers, test kits and lab chemicals. The lab analysis setup for wine will test for pH, titratable acidity, brix for juice analysis and yeast-assimilable nitrogen. Other things to test for are alcohol concentration, volatile acidity and free and total sulfur dioxide.
For routine analysis, it is essential to measure soluble solids to determine the level of grape maturity, fermentation status and alcohol content. Knowing the pH and titratable acidity helps a winemaker determine the grape ripeness and stability of the wine. Sulfur dioxide levels indicate the amounts of unwanted microorganisms, browning enzymes and antioxidant levels. When you know a wine’s ethanol content from lab testing, you can ensure that your wine is in the sweet spot of 10 to 14 percent alcohol content. Meanwhile, the wine spoilage risk can be mitigated by volatile acidity testing, and sensory lab testing that is separate from the rest of the wine lab can detect “off” colors and smells with new wine.
Based in Columbus, Ohio, Mettler-Toledo provides analytical instruments and application support for wineries that cover the entire vinification process. This company offers brix meters for determining the readiness of grapes for harvest, density meters for fermentation monitoring and UV/VIS spectrophotometers for analyzing various characteristics, such as color, phenol, glucose and fructose content.
“The most commonly used instruments are our Excellence Titrators to assess pH, total acidity and free and total sulfur dioxide in must and wine to ensure quality and consistency of products,” Luke Soposki, AnaChem technical market analyst for Mettler-Toledo told The Grapevine Magazine. “Frequently, the titrators are paired with an InMotion® Autosampler to increase sample throughput and minimize the amount of necessary interaction from laboratory personnel.”
Unitech Scientific, based in Hawaiian Gardens, California, has designed and manufactured over 20 enzymatic reagent kits for wine analysis to check glucose/fructose, malic acid, acetic acid, ammonia, primary amino nitrogen and free and total sulfites. Customers can use this company’s reagent kits with manual spectrophotometers and automated analyzer systems.
“Unitech’s analyzers meet the needs of every
type of winery, from our manual V-120 Spectrophotometer and affordable semi-automatic analyzer for boutique wineries to our fully automatic ChemWell-T for Wine and premier ChemWell for Wine,” Rulan Miao, the president of Unitech Scientific, told The Grapevine Magazine.
“We provide installation and thorough training for ChemWell customers and service and support all our analyzers. Unitech Scientific also offers microbiology culture media and accessories for yeast, bacteria and spoilage organisms, including Brettanomyces.”
When setting up a wine lab, you’ll need to consider the lab equipment’s size and placement location. There are additional considerations to keep in mind about storing lab chemicals to keep employees safe from accidental exposure. Yet suitable lab protocols will ensure more consistently good wine with refreshing predictability.
Another essential piece of equipment is the refractometer, which measures grape maturity and sugar content, as well as must concentration before fermentation. Refractometers help predict alcohol concentration, monitor fermentation and gauge residual solids and final alcohol content in wine. MISCO, based in Solon, Ohio and in business for more than 70 years, is the last remaining manufacturer of handheld refractometers in the United States.
“The beauty of the MISCO handheld digital refractometers is that the customer can select from a basic Brix-only instrument to an instrument with several winemaking scales, including Baume, Oechsle, KMV, Sugar Content (g/L), Mass Fraction, Sugar Estimated Alcohol, Actual Alcohol and Specific Gravity,” Kathy Widing, the director of technical sales for MISCO, told The Grapevine Magazine. “The customer can select up to five measurement scales per unit.”
Widing shared that the detector array in the MISCO digital refractometer has 1,024 detector elements supporting a resolution of more than 3,256 pixels per inch. Meanwhile, competing units only have 128 detector elements with 400 PPI. With 87 percent more detector elements, the MISCO units have more than eight times the resolution.
“To put this in perspective, it is roughly the difference between a two- to five-megapixel camera compared to a 20-megapixel camera, Widing said. “This provides MISCO refractometers with two to three times the measurement precision. Unlike competitors that offer only glass prisms, MISCO refractometers have a sapphire measuring surface, the next hardest substance to diamond, so they are virtually scratch-proof. The MISCO digital refractometer also features a large 24-character by two-line LCD display with a backlight, a stainless-steel sample well and a protective evaporation cover.”
MISCO refractometers are very easy to use and come with a detailed instruction manual. But when asked about possible challenges that wineries encounter when using refractometers, Widing shared three problematic scenarios: (1) not zero-setting the instrument before use, (2) not waiting a short time after applying a sample for the temperature of the sample and device to equalize and (3) not keeping the measuring surface clean.
In-House Lab v. Outsourced Lab
The decision to create an in-house wine lab or outsource this work to a professional laboratory company often comes down to winery size, production amounts, location and budget. If a winery has its own lab, it may get faster testing results instead of waiting for lab reports from an outside company. Having your own lab can help your winery improve record keeping and ensure more precise quality control. You can identify significant problem areas early to prevent potential production issues later on and get better analytical insights into a wine’s unique qualities. Some wineries with their own labs have found that they save on shipping and logistical costs over time, compared to paying those fees for outside wine lab services.
“One of the greatest benefits of having an on-site laboratory is the ability to readily analyze samples and obtain results versus aggregating samples and shipping them to a testing facility,” Soposki from Mettler-Toledo said. “This allows the vinification process to be more dynamic, with more flexibility to the workflow. Having an in-house lab can also be more cost-effective over time depending on the number of samples regularly shipped and analyzed. Lastly, with an in-house lab, Mettler-Toledo experts are always available for assistance with application support and interpretation of results. If there are sample results that fall outside of the expected range, we can provide assistance with result interpretation and suggest corrective actions.”
However, a great deal of training and experience are needed for a winery staff to handle its own lab testing. While hiring an outside lab may give you less control over the testing process, it can still be a cost-effective option for smaller and newer wineries. If you have limited staff or knowledge about wine testing, hiring an expert to handle this part of the process can make the difference between producing mediocre and fantastic wine.
“Operating an on-site laboratory includes additional business considerations that need to be evaluated on a case-by-case basis to decide if testing labs may be a better fit,” Soposki said. “To effectively run an on-site lab, dedicated personnel are necessary to get the best results from your analyses. Personnel need to be comfortable handling reagents and managing the purchasing process to ensure necessary chemicals are on-hand. Ultimately, while there are instrument options for any budget, the cost of ownership and maintenance needs to be evaluated.”
Miao from Unitech Scientific told The Grapevine Magazine that the advantages of setting up in-house testing are the timely availability and the low cost of your analyses. In this way, Unitech Scientific customers can avoid the expense and delay of shipping or delivering samples to an outside lab.
“In-house testing requires that sufficient time be set-aside for ordering materials and performing the analysis,” Miao said. “The key requirement is an experienced individual or a person willing and capable of developing the skills needed. Unitech Scientific provides step-by-step instructions with our reagent kits and simplified EnoLyzer applications for our EnoLyzer customers. Our technical support team is available to answer your questions.”
Innovations for the Modern Wine Lab
Although it is necessary to evaluate costs, staffing and expertise when choosing between building an in-house lab or using an outside lab, it’s important to note that new products and technologies are emerging every year. More affordable products now allow even small wineries to automate their labs and get themselves poised for future growth.
During the past 12 months, Mettler-Toledo has introduced three new products that fit seamlessly into the analytical workflows of wineries. The new EasyPlus UV/VIS Spectrophotometers are user-friendly instruments designed to quickly perform measurements crucial to the quality of the ingredients and the final wine product.
“These benchtop instruments come preloaded with 10+ color scales to make color measurements simple and efficient,” Soposki of Mettler-Toledo said. “Additionally, conventional spectroscopy can be used to perform analyses, such as phenol, glucose, fructose and malic acid content.”
A second new product is the DipenSix Liquid Handler, which can be integrated into a titration system with an InMotion® Autosampler. Soposki said this product automatically doses consistent and accurate sample volumes, aids in sample preparation and dilutions and performs cleaning before moving on to the next sample. The benefit of DispenSix is that each analysis is fully automated and performed in just a few minutes.
“Lastly, our new MyBrix handheld refractometer is ideal for determining the optimal harvesting time of grapes and measuring the sugar content of grape must before fermentation,” Soposki said. “It measures refractive index as well as sugar content in our preferred scale, with results displayed in just two seconds. Digital refractometers increase results reliability in comparison to analog refractometers by eliminating operator dependency and assisting with error detection.”
While discussing new technological innovations and enhancements that have come out recently for winery lab equipment, Miao from Unitech Scientific referenced the introduction of semi-automated and automated enzymatic analyzers. These updates complement the ease of importing lab results from these analyzers into PC spreadsheets with a management system that has revolutionized information flow within the winery.
“We continually improve the user-friendliness of our reagent kits,” Miao said. “For example, our ACS Powder has recently been replaced with a convenient liquid-stable ACS solution.”
“The latest technological innovation in refractometry is the move from the traditional handheld analog refractometer to digital handheld instruments,” said Widing from MISCO. “Besides the fact that a digital refractometer removes the subjectivity of visually determining where the fuzzy shadow line of a traditional refractometer meets the tiny scale division, digital devices offer an order of magnitude better accuracy and precision. Other new technologies include miniature refractive index sensors that can automate sample-taking with continuous sample measurements.”
Choosing the Best Lab Solutions
An increasing number of wineries, both large and small, are using analytical instruments in their production processes with the help of specialized suppliers that have extensive industry knowledge and offer ongoing support. In addition to choosing an experienced company to work with and settling on the best products for your needs, it’s also important to consider cleaning procedures and preventative maintenance plans to extend the longevity of your lab instruments. Soposki said that a well-cared-for and properly maintained lab instrument from Mettler-Toledo will last at least ten years before a replacement needs to be considered.
But however a winery chooses to approach lab testing, there is no denying its importance and need for attention to detail.
“Optimum wine quality requires that the winemaker closely monitor grape ripeness, fermentation completeness, sulfite levels and emerging wine spoilage issues,” said Miao from Unitech Scientific. “Timely lab results are much more sensitive and precise than traditional wine evaluation, and close monitoring of the fermentation and aging processes reduces contamination and enhances quality and yields.”
Even if you think your winery is too small to warrant an upgrade in lab equipment, it may be worth looking at what is now available for in-house testing. You might be surprised at your own capabilities and be enticed by potential winery efficiency improvements that can result from a modest initial investment.